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A course on “The Voices of Opera” raises the intriguing question of what makes different singers so special
By Mort Levine

“Nothing about opera is subject to more disagreement than a discussion of voices.” That comment in the course catalog for Music 191 in Stanford's Winter Continuing Studies came from the now retired general director of Seattle Opera, Speight Jenkins. It was followed by “students will be encouraged to share their opinions and challenge the instructor.” Jenkins is a most articulate and energetic 79-year-old with a vast treasury of experiences of opera going back nearly 60 years. He has critiqued, auditioned, recruited, staged and in many cases befriended hundreds of singers. And now over a span of five lectures he will be sharing all that with 100 or so opera-lovers.

In his opening salvo he talked about tenors, arguably a voice type fraught with an amazing range of characters through the years. It also has a series of generally accepted classifications within which some unique singers move up and down. In future lectures, similar classifications will focus on sopranos, mezzos, baritones and basses. All with lots of vocal examples and opinions on specific singers.

The earliest and highest tenor voices were the Castrati, an Italian phenomenon, that kept a boy soprano's voice into adulthood by surgery. These voices ruled the top operatic roost for about 175 years until 1824. The true Bel Canto tenor then emerged to sing the Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini roles. One example was John McCormack who had fantastic breath control and was adept at decorative fioritura those roles offered. Bel Canto tenors of today include Juan Diego Flores who does those nine high C's in Daughter of the Regiment effortlessly. Jenkins made special mention of newcomer Lawrence Brownlee, a Bel Canto tenor, who debuted at Seattle and is now featured at the Met.

Most tenors are in the category of Lyric tenor, with a range that doesn't normally go
as high as the Bel Canto, but are comfortable going into the lower register of the Spinto
(for more powerful effects) or the Dramatic tenor (ideal for many Verdi roles). Best of the
Lyric tenors in Jenkins' view were the versatile Nicolai Gedda, and Tito Schipa, whose vocalism possessed a unique elegance. He made special mention of Matthew Polenzani, who just appeared in the Pearl Fishers at the Met HD movie earlier this month.

Among the great Dramatic tenors who ruled the opera world through much of the 20th century were Benjamino Gigli, Giovanni Martinelli and Georges Thill.

As Verismo operas came into popularity from composers like Puccini, Mascani and Leoncavallo, it created Verismo tenors like Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco and
Richard Tucker.

Finally, in the Jenkins spectrum, is the Heldentenor doing the Germanic heroic repertory, especially Wagner. Exemplars include the magnificent Lauritz Melchior, Wolfgang Windgassen and Jon Vickers who recently died.

Distinction needs to be drawn between singers who possess outstanding vocal qualities and those who emphasize the dramatic possibilitiesin a role. Alas, it is not always found in the same singer. There are, and have always been, singers with special star power who came to dominate a certain repertory through mastery of one or the other, Four examples of these tenors include Melchior, Jussi Bjoerling, Luciano Pavorotti and Placido Domingo. Jenkins lists Domingo as especially notable for his dramatic skills. Bjoerling is cited for outstanding vocalism and Melchior for both— especially as Tristan.

It's enough to send one rummaging through old 78 record albums.

(SJOG Newsletter February 2016)

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